The computer of the future? Certainly not the near future, but they are useful accessories for many computer users. They are far less capable than a laptop computer, but are much smaller and less expensive.
3Com's Palm Pilot series has about 65% of the market, and IBM's virtually identical twin has some of the remainder. Most of the competing products are a somewhat larger, technically more powerful, and run Microsoft's Windows CE, a sort of scaled down Windows 95.
The Palm Pilot and its competitors are really an electronic notebook with the ability to synchronize effectively and easily with your desktop or laptop computer. (References to desktops in this article include laptops).
The Palm Pilot supports a simple spreadsheet, and scaled down versions of many desktop computer software applications. However, most users buy Palm Pilots as an appointment book, address list, a "to-do" list and the ability to carry notes and business or personal data.
3Com claim that a typical current model can store 4000 addresses, four years of appointments (approximately 2400), 750 to-do items, 750 memos and 100 E-mail messages.Clearly, the actual capacity will depend on the size of some items, but this gives some idea of the space available. On the basis of our experience to date, the 3Com claim is not unreasonable, although perhaps a little optimistic.
I have several friends who swear by their Palm Pilots' ability to simplify the organization of daily life. These include a couple of programmers at Microsoft who are generally very positive about Microsoft products, but prefer the competitor in this case.
My wife has been using a Palm Pilot one for a month or so now, and already wonders how she survived without it. She is a nurse for an air ambulance service, and flies a dozen times per month. She used to have about 100 pocketbook size pages of notes on drugs and their side effects, and associated medical data, which she had typed in a format that fit the book. Now, she has all of this information in the form of "memos" in her Palm Pilot, along with several hundred addresses and her calendar.
Apart from saving space and weight, she can search the drug list for the alternative names, or the whole database for any word of her choice, so that non-indexed items can be found rapidly.
All updates to the data she makes in-flight are automatically transferred back to her desktop computer on return to the office.
The same capabilities could be used by field sales and service staff for notes on customers, technical data on equipment being serviced, etc. While Helen just loads her database into one Palm Pilot, it is quite straightforward to load data into hundreds of units, with updates by modem or direct connection.
The Palm Pilot has a keyboard about 3/4-in. by 2 in., which you use by poking with the "stylus" provided. This is just a blunt plastic rod, necessary because the keys are about 2 mm square.
The alternative is to write on the Palm Pilot screen and let it recognize the characters. This works, but first you have to learn to write the simplified alphabet, which 3Com calls "graffiti." The bottom line is that the Palm Pilot is primarily a device for reading, and that most data entry will be via your computer keyboard, with all the advantages of easy editing with your word processor.
The key to success of the Palm Pilot is that the data stored in it can be readily synchronized with a desktop computer, by inserting the Pilot in a cradle which is semi-permanently plugged into the computer and pushing one button. Whatever new data has been added to either machine will be updated on the other.
If desired, it is also possible to synchronize the Palm Pilot with a desktop computer by modem. This would be useful for field staff who rarely return to base, and who wish updates. The only complication is that a phone line must be available, just as it must for connecting to E-mail. A cell phone can be used, with a suitable modem.
As delivered, the Palm Pilot and competing machines include software that is installed in your computer to take care of the synchronization. This software included an elementary calendar, address list, memo pad and task list.
We prefer to use Microsoft Outlook for calendar, task lists and addresses, so we purchased a package called Desktop to Go for Palm Pilot from Dataviz. There are comparable products for users of Lotus Notes and other personal information management software commonly used on PCs and MACs. You can find links to these third party suppliers on the Internet at http://www.palm.com/resources/index.html.
Any desktop software you use for addresses, calendar, task lists etc. is probably better than that provided with the Palm Pilot, so most users will find it worthwhile to buy suitable interfacing software.
The Palm Pilot can be connected to either its own, very small, modem, or to any external modem used with a PC. With suitable software, it can be used to access E-mail. Due to the small size of the screen, and the tiny awkward keyboard, it will never be effective as your principal E-mail access, but it is one solution while on the road.
JP Systems (http://www.palmzone.com/experiences/9901.shtml) sell an interface card for the Palm Pilot that allows use of a PC-card cell phone to improve access to the Internet. They claim that you can browse the Internet with it, but I would hate to try to read a web page on the Palm Pilot's tiny, monochrome screen.
A number of services on the Internet will download maps of certain areas as well as airline schedules to the Palm Pilot. You can find these by looking through the links at http://www.palmcentral.com.
The Palm Pilot now faces a threat by Microsoft, with the support of several hardware manufacturers. They are introducing Palm PCs which will run Windows CE, and will be more powerful, larger than, and somewhat more expensive than the Palm Pilots. Initial trials of prototypes by some of the computer magazines show them to be deathly slow in some operations. However, this will presumably be rectified before they hit the market later this year.
NEW FROM CANADA
A Canadian company recently introduced a device called BlackBerry that combines the widespread access of pagers with E-mail and many of Palm Pilot features (http://www.blackberry.net/home/main.shtml).
The BlackBerry focuses on easy wireless phone connections, rather than the excellent PC synchronization of the Palm Pilot, and is somewhat more expensive. As with all cell phone and similar services, there are monthly charges involved. The support required at your central office is a little complicated, so BlackBerry is much more likely to suit users in large and medium size companies than individuals or small business.